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The Pope Opposes Adjectives

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The pope opposes adjectives. Now why would the beloved, but occasionally controversial, slightly balding, Argentinean-born, inspiring religious leader say that? Pope Francis this week told a meeting of his Vatican communications team he is allergic to qualifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs. He said, we have, quote, "forgotten the strength of nouns."

Joshua McElwee covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter and joins us from Rome. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah, great to be with you.

SIMON: So what's the holy father's problem with qualifiers?

MCELWEE: Well, it was kind of a fun, little audience. He met with about 500 Vatican staffers that work in his department that basically houses the Vatican's different media entities and the public relations staff. And as he sometimes does to the delight of his audience, he said he was going to throw away his prepared text. He said that prepared speeches can be boring. And he kind of went off the cuff for about 10 minutes. And he basically kind of returned to a theme he's done a few times in his papacy, which is more about gossip and how gossip is so dangerous to Christian communities. Before he said, it's like throwing a bomb in a room, and then walking away and watching what happens. And in this particular case, he was talking about people who kind of insinuate certain things with adjectives. He gave the example of someone who says, you know, a person is authentically Christian. And he said, why not just call that person a Christian?

SIMON: So his argument is - it's against a qualifier like, let's say, devout, ardent or devoted Christian.

MCELWEE: Yeah, I think the point the pope was making was, you know, what are you trying to do with that word? Are you trying to kind of spin that subject? If they're a Christian, they're a Christian. If something is real, it's real. You don't need to kind of put your own spin on it or qualify how this person acts or what not.

SIMON: I don't think we could do without adjectives covering U.S. news.

MCELWEE: (Laughter) Well, it's funny because the pope obviously has a very international audience. But he's also aware certainly of the U.S. media landscape. So it's curious to wonder if he is responding to the culture. He did say that this was something that he had seen infecting culture, and he was a bit worried it was going to infect the church.

He made a funny reference, he said, our speech shouldn't be like a rococo art, the art form of the 18th century of the late Baroque that had all sorts of filigree and ridiculous woodwork. But it was more important to communicate the beauty of the thing and not try to dress it all up.

SIMON: There's a lot of that filigree and ridiculous woodwork in the Vatican, isn't there?

MCELWEE: (Laughter) He - well, he was giving this speech in one of the Vatican's very big and frescoed halls. But I think the highlight for many of them was because he had given an impromptu speech and laid aside his prepared text, he was able to shake all 500 hands. He greeted each person individually. And that seems to be a - kind of a signpost of what he really thinks and kind of a little symbol of the message of each person mattering and not how they're described.

SIMON: What do the pope's remarks this week to his communications team - where do they fit into the theme of his papacy?

MCELWEE: Well, Pope Francis over the past six years has really been a pope of outreach. He often speaks of a culture of encounter, of trying to build bridges between various peoples, various cultures, various national identities and really be what the pope is - a bridge builder. And this language about communicating who a person is or not trying to insinuate that people are certain things or not trying to give things certain spin, it really fits in well to many of the different ways he's kind of lived that message over the past six years.

SIMON: Well it's been amusing, delightful, enjoyable, entertaining and engaging to have you on our program.

MCELWEE: (Laughter) Thank you. It was a delight.

SIMON: Joshua McElwee covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUM'S "TOOTHWHEELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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